Is there artistry in grade-Z horror?: A critical review of “Cellar Dweller” (1988)

Why do people keep giving Jeffrey Combs copies of the “Necronomicon”? I know better. You know better. But some people just can’t figure this out. At least, this appears to be the dilemma at the start of “Cellar Dweller,” a late 80s, direct-to-video horror schlocker I found myself watching the other day on Comet TV (arguably my new favorite channel–it’s your one-stop-shop for cheesy horror). Before we’re through, the film will (inadvertently?) make some statements about art–and tally a body count.

Despite his high listing in the cast list, Jeffrey Combs is on screen for about six minutes, playing (the delightfully named) Colin Childress, a comic book artist who summons a monstrous creature–presumably the titular Cellar Dweller–with his sketches. Despite banishing the beast, Childress ends up killing someone and burning the basement down. Fast forward 30 years, and the house where Childress summoned the monster has become an artist retreat. Whitney Taylor (Debrah Farentino, “Storm of the Century”) heads to the retreat, which hosts a quirky cast of characters including Miranda Wilson as a nutty performance artist (I knew girls like that in college); Vince Edwards as a retired private detective who channels his experiences into detective fiction; Brian Robbins as a prerequisite 80s boytoy; and, most significantly, Pamela Bellwood as an old artistic rival and Yvone De Carlo (TV’s Lily Munster) as the no-nonsense head of the retreat. Taylor starts following in Childress’s footsteps and her drawings turn dangerous–when she draws people being gruesomely killed by the Cellar Dweller, those people end up being gruesomely killed by…well, you get it.

“Cellar Dweller” is no great shake. The transformations (there are a couple) are not good and the ending falls a little flat. However, the monster suit, while largely stationary, is good, the acting is decent and the script is not bad. It was written by Don Mancini (scripter of “Troll,” creator of the Chucky franchise and, most deliciously, writer of a few episodes of “Hannibal”), and the film feels a bit like an overlong episode of “Tales From the Crypt,” both in terms of scope and morality (Mancini would go on to pen at least one episode of the series). But the narrative is not the only thing that’s contained in the film.

It might be the fact that it was released direct-to-video, but “Cellar Dweller” has a claustrophobic element that works in its favor. Shots are not merely confined; they are curiously squared, as if director John Carl Buechler (“Troll” again and, later, a Friday the 13th franchise alum) tried to place the frames of the film in comic book panels. Even long shots are confined to squares. Look again at the shot of Taylor entering the artist’s colony–the straight lines of the trees make a stern border for the action. This comic book framing is important not just because of our protagonist’s profession, but also for the sake of the film’s definition of art.

The definition of art (one of my favorite philosophical subjects) is quite broad and inviting in “Cellar Dweller.” In the film, art can be painting, illustration, writing, performance and film. Mediums are also inclusive; at the retreat, artists work with canvas, comic books and cameras. What is art? “Cellar Dweller” takes a post-modern approach, suggesting that anything can be art given the way you do it (does that include “Cellar Dweller” itself?). But there is a trace of traditionalism. Over the course of the film, art appears to be what you feel and express–Taylor repeatedly talks about her desires spilling onto the page (and ending in the deaths of the a couple of her fellow artists). But Taylor is also in touch with some more primal force–the “imagination,” the Cellar Dweller itself proclaims. Far be it from me to apply Platonic theories of reality to “Cellar Dweller,” but it appears as though the film suggests that, to a certain degree, art comes from the inspiration given by a supernatural entity–what the ancients called genius.

All that said, is “Cellar Dweller” a good movie? No. But I think I’m something of a connoisseur of cheesy B-cinema. Some of it’s bad. Some of it’s so bad it’s good. And some of it approaches good. “Cellar Dweller” might just fall in to the latter category.

On showing and telling: A critical review of “It Follows” (2015)

It seems like every couple of years there’s some new movie that’s touted as the one that’s completely changed the rules of horror. In 2012, it was “Cabin in the Woods”; last year it was “It Follows,” which I caught on Showtime the other day.

I dislike that kind of thinking. It seems to suggest that there’s something wrong with horror as it is–that it needs saving. I think it’s telling that whenever there’s a film that’s given the distinction of “savior of horror,” it’s something that attempts intelligence or artistry. This is more than misguided; it’s demeaning. It leads back to the old notion of the mystery science ghetto–any horror film that attempts intelligence or artistry must be the one that’s going to save the genre because the genre is naturally stupid and artless. That’s nonsense; horror has as much potential for intelligence and artistry as any other genre.

“It Follows” is unquestionably an artsy movie. The film follows Jay (newly minted scream queeen Maika Monroe), a sexy teen who thinks she’s going to have sexy sex with her boyfriend (Jake Weary, looking like the world’s oldest high schooler); instead, he knocks her out, ties her to a chair and infects her with “it.” Basically, the titular “it” is a ghostly shape shifting entity that follows Jay around–always silent, slow moving and wearing white–that will kill her if it gets too close. Jay’s friends–including a standard dork with a crush (Keir Gilchrist)–go from doubting her sanity to increasingly desperate attempts to protect her from the invincible entity.

The film is certainly visually rewarding. The cinematography is pleasant and clean–and I mean that. Writer-director David Robert Mitchell and cinematographer Mike Gioulakis have a penchant for setting up and focusing on interesting shots (the opening scene is essentially one shot and largely silent). The film also knows how to display color. While many indie horror films opt for a monochrome or limited palate, “It Follows” is refreshingly vibrant. So the film looks good. But is it smart? Well…

The atmosphere is the film’s strongest element. The environment is dream-like. No parents trouble the teens, and the architecture of the town rolls on like an eternal suburbia, bordered by a local beach and a village green. Bodies of water–a pool, a lake, another pool–act as grounding elements rather than street signs. There is also an untimely, decidedly retro feel to the film, from the props to the shots (and the score sounds like outtakes from 1979’s “Phantasm”). The entity is the most dream-like part of the film. It lopes in the distance, looking like someone different every time it turns a corner or disappears behind a door, or it simply stands and stares almost out of sight. The fact that other people can’t see it only adds to its dream-like mystique.

The subtext is quite well handled. Although the most common interpretation of the film is that the entity represents sexually transmitted diseases, it’s sexually suggestive in more than one way. The fear of intimacy, the cheapening of sex in modern society and even the inevitability of death are all wrapped inside the film’s symbolism. It works, for the most part, but there are flubs. For example, one wonders what’s up with the bottles of pills in the boyfriend’s hideout–if they’re meds, the film might be suggesting a psychological, rather than supernatural, explanation for its events, but this idea is never developed. Perhaps it is all simply about venereal disease, and the pills are a shot at the mercury cure?

Part of the problem is that the film is much more concerned with atmosphere than narrative. While I myself am more impressed by atmosphere than narrative, “It Follows” loses its way more than once, particularly with the monstrous entity that lurks at the periphery of the film.

“It Follows'” climactic pool scene might be a nod to the climax of the excellent “Let the Right One In,” but I prefer to think it’s a nod to Val Lewton and Jacques Tournier’s excellent “Cat People.” Despite working for RKO, Lewton behaved like an independent producer, so he’s an ideal idol for indie horror filmmakers everywhere–his tricks were designed to maximize psychological impact while minimizing budget. Much like “Cat People,” “It Follows” wants to hide its monster in the shadows. But while the poolside scene in “Cat People” kept the monster just out of shot and out of sight, in “It Follows,” as soon as we’re in the pool, the film starts showcasing its lack of visible monster is a very different way. Where before the monster was glimpses of out of place people, now we have teenagers shouting at what appears to be nothing…nothing that is throwing toasters.

A film has to be fairly comfortable with its monster to show it; it must be very comfortable not to show it. “It Follows” wants to have the best of both worlds. It can’t. I’m sorry if I’m nitpicking, but “It Follows” is such an earnest and well conceived attempt that it feels like it can handle some nitpicking. “It Follows” is a good looking and atmospheric and–dare I say it–a  fresh take on an old story. But its unsteady plot collapses in its final third. Two impressive thirds of a film do not a great film make, but those two thirds are impressive enough to demand attention.